Australian Aborigines say that the big stories—the stories worth telling and retelling, the ones in which you may find the meaning of your life—are forever stalking the right teller, sniffing and tracking like predators hunting their prey in the bush.
Robert Moss, Dreamgates
Ideas come and go, flitting in and out of our minds. In order to realise these ideas they must be grounded. As Julie Cameron explains, ‘art is not about thinking something up. It is the opposite - getting something down.’ For me, it is usually enough to keep a journal in which to note a dream, a connection, a description, a quote. . . anything to provide an anchor for my fleeting inspirations. But I have been guilty of neglecting my journal, believing that I would remember the ideas that came through the dreams that permeated my restless nights, or while walking on the promenade here in Aberystwyth, listening to the crash of the waves and the cries of the gulls. For a time the ideas came as they always have but I didn’t ground them and after a while they stopped coming because I had stopped listening. I forced myself to keep writing, not my novel, but other projects that demanded my attention. However, the flow had stopped, so that I was giving without receiving and in so doing, depleting myself. At first I just felt drained of enthusiasm which should have been a clear warning signal because enthusiasm, a term that originally meant an inspired connection to God, is a vital part of creativity. After a while I became fatigued and emptied of vitality. Instead of joy and vigour I found myself caught up in a deadening and monotonous day-to-day routine. And finally I began questioning my calling as a writer.
There have been a number of times in my life when I’ve questioned my reasons for writing but until recently I have never doubted that writing is my path in life, the form of expression best suited to me. This doubt proved to be a wake-up call, alerting me to the process that had been subtly eroding my creativity over many months. Since then, I have followed the advice I gave myself in my previous post and found a way to re-engage with my novel-in-progress. It is a tentative return though, a fragile agreement between me and my muse, and one that could be broken again at any time if I don’t keep my end of the bargain. And a bargain it is. For in turning my back on this novel I have, in a sense, betrayed the responsibility I carry as a creator of stories, a responsibility that entails being present for the creative process. . . listening. . . trusting. . . making notes. . . following the clues. . . asking questions. . . and looking at the world through seeing eyes. As Julie Cameron explains, ‘in dance, in composition, in sculpture, the experience is the same: we are more the conduit than the creator of what we express.’ To a certain extent then, our creative expressions are gifts but in order to receive them we must remain open (see Giving and Receiving). If we turn away we lose our connection and break our agreement.
At certain stages of the creative process, solitude and silence are vital. We descend into a quiet place within ourselves where we take stock and gather our energy, all the time listening and watching, waiting for our inspiration. I am reading a good deal now, both fiction and non-fiction, nourishing myself with the creations and ideas of others. I am walking too, more slowly, relishing the quiet and taking time to notice everything around me, to wonder at the mysteries of life, pausing joyfully in front of a bed of flowers, and watching intrigued as a bird gathers twigs for its nest. It will take time to refuel but I am on the way. Once again I am carrying my journal with me and already I can feel the excitement of unexpected links and the rewarding back and forth movement between my journal and the novel, as one inspiration inspires another. As the process continues, a sense of playfulness grows, a tuning in to the imagination and a willingness to let go of expectations and allow surprises. Creativity demands this playfulness, allowing us to make the necessary leap into the unknown and retrieve our story (see Coming Unstuck). Ben Okri speaks of the ‘marriage between play and discipline, purpose and mastery,’ a marriage that produces ‘the wonders of literature’. For me this 'marriage' represents a perpetual movement between the heart and the head and the intuitive and the rational as I seek to maintain a harmonious balance between the art and the craft of writing.
Storytelling is a sacred skill and sometimes it is hard to meet its demands. The process is one of alchemy, taking the raw material and transmuting it into gold, finding the essence of meaning, exploring truth through metaphor and building bridges with words that will paradoxically enable us to escape the very limitations of words. As in alchemy, the process is not purely technical. There is something else, a tremendous change that must be brought about within the alchemist or the story teller. In The Philosopher’s Stone, Peter Marshall writes that ‘at all times an inextricable link was recognised between the personal growth of the alchemist and the development of his experiments. Ultimately the alchemist is the subject and object of his own experiment.’ As with alchemy, a story always leaves its mark on the teller. Both writers and readers emerge changed but for writers that change is usually fundamental and the process sometimes frightening. For as novelist, Maria Szepes writes in The Red Lion, ‘by the laws of alchemy something has to die and decay before it can rise.’ If we deny the creative process, then we deny change and in so doing we deaden ourselves to life. But if we accept change we step into the unknown and while ultimately rewarding, it is not a safe journey and it is rarely easy.
In his essay, The Joys of Storytelling, Ben Okri describes ‘two essential joys. . . the joy of the telling, which is to say of the artistic discovery. And the joy of listening, which is to say of the imaginative identification . . . The first involves exploration and suffering and love. The second involves silence and openness and thought.’ As I make small forays into my novel, reacquainting myself with the characters, building scenes and developing themes, I find myself immersed once again in ‘the joy of the telling’. I can only hope that I am have been stalked by a ‘big story’, one that is ‘worth telling and retelling’.